The Dangers of Ghirardelli’s Sensationalized Story: How Ghirardelli Avoids Chocolate Production Scrutiny

Ghirardelli Square is open to the public from 9 am to midnight

Unbeknownst to many chocolate consumers, Ghirardelli, the second oldest American chocolate maker, has called San Francisco home for over one hundred fifty years (Lawrence 90). Since its mid-nineteenth century beginnings, Ghirardelli has secured worldwide partnerships, opened twenty-three shops across the United States, and established its reputation as a delectable square chocolate treat and outstanding baking ingredient. Ghirardelli has even left its mark in public spaces. Most notably, the company worked with San Francisco leadership to open Ghirardelli Square, a living and breathing landmark, in the heart of San Francisco’s Marina District.

Flip through any San Francisco travel guide and you’re bound to stumble upon Ghirardelli Square as a must see destination. With reviews raving about the Square’s incredible view of the Pacific Bay, majestic marquee lights, and fun shops and restaurants for both tourists and non tourists, it has become an iconic part of the San Francisco map. However, Ghirardelli’s influence in San Francisco doesn’t end with this monumental Square. With three Ghirardelli stores flourishing in San Francisco, including Ghirardelli on the Go at Westfield Shopping Center, and a elaborate food booth at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, Ghirardelli continues to imprint its sentimental value in the hearts and minds of San Francisco residents.

Due to its long history in San Francisco, Ghirardelli’s name evokes two meanings. On one hand, Ghirardelli’s brand elicits an image of a regional, premium, and specialty chocolate business rather what it truly is: a company owned by chocolate conglomerate Lindt & Sprüngli. On the other hand, the Ghirardelli refers to places and rituals including its landmark Square in San Francisco, the company’s small factory experiences scattered across the country, and the numerous company events promoting their chocolate, such as the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival. These two evocations of the Ghirardelli name allow the company to champion their status as a community driven, morally righteous, high-quality chocolate company, and unfairly avoid the scrutiny that “Big 5” chocolate companies receive.

Domenico Ghirardelli

In order to understand how people perceive Ghirardelli today, it is important to contextualize the company’s long history. Born in the early nineteenth century, Domenico Ghirardelli, the founder of Ghirardelli, grew up surrounded by Italian culture and cuisine naturally due to his dad’s spice trader job in Genoa, Italy. When his interest in food peaked during his teenage years, Domenico apprenticed at luxury chocolate store Romanengo where he learned to craft and sell chocolate, candies, and chocolate paste that melts into boiling water (Lawrence 90). Equipped with immense knowledge about the chocolate industry and in search of new beginnings away from home, Domenico moved from Genoa to Uruguay to Lima, Peru, all within the span of one year (Lawrence 91).

Domenico finally settled in Lima for its compatible Latin culture; the similar language and the friendly patrons reminded him of his Italian home. As Ghirardelli prepared to establish his own confectionary and spice business in Lima, he changed his name to Domingo to appeal to Peru’s Spanish speaking clientele (Lawrence 92). His chocolate shop, located in the heart of the city’s central square, attracted flocks of customers waiting to sample candies he modeled from his lessons at Romanengo. Settled in Lima, Domingo prospered as a confectionary shop keeper by churning out daily chocolate and candy recipes. But his newfound permanence, a sense of belonging in the Lima community, did not last long.

James Lick, a piano and cabinet shop keeper next to Ghirardelli, followed the immigration movement to America, and more specifically San Francisco. As he set sail, he loaded up about 600 pounds of Ghirardelli’s hand pressed chocolate, promising Ghirardelli he would sell every last pound (Lawrence 92). While Ghirardelli was comfortable operating in Lima, Lick and Ghirardelli’s forged friendship and the temptation of a fresh start in a new country compelled Ghirardelli to follow Lick to America in 1849 (Lawrence 92).

Ghirardelli advertisement from the late 19th century

As Ghirardelli immigrated to San Francisco, the city was facing its own set of monumental events. 1849 signaled the the Gold Rush where 300,000 hopeful miners flocked to San Francisco to strike rich. Sensing a lucrative business model, Ghirardelli opened several grocery stores in Stockton, California to market his chocolate and sweets to hungry Gold Rush miners (Lawrence 92). Since his shop was the second chocolate maker in the United States, many customers savored their first bite of chocolate in his store, and praise for his chocolates quickly spread. Despite his shops being open for only a few years, he became known as one of San Francisco’s “Money Men,” a title reserved for people making close to $25,000 or more (Lawrence 92). This prominence jumpstarted his career as an American chocolate maker and gave him the confidence to open his first operation and sales confectionary shop at the Verandah building in Portsmouth Square (Lawrence 92).

After several more years of perfecting the chocolate formula, establishing connections to cocoa bean farmers, and cementing its business as a household name in San Francisco, Ghirardelli Square, which once housed Ghirardelli’s factory and businesses, opened as a public landmark on 1964 (Lawrence 114). This triumphant opening came after many months of fighting group of real estate developers who wanted to demolish and purchase the property. To further ensure the Square’s future prospects, the Ghirardelli Square owners applied for and received National Historic Register status in 1982 (Ghirardelli). Nowadays, the Square rents out space to local businesses such as The Cheese School of San Francisco and San Francisco gift shop Jackson & Polk.

Ghirardelli’s present-day logo

Ghirardelli’s elaborate journey from Italy to San Francisco and the story behind the locally cemented chocolate empire feels heartwarming, which makes it such an effective marketing tool. The company emphasizes the story’s significance on their website, in academic journals, and in Ghirardelli Chocolate’s cookbooks. The company’s logo even features a flying eagle and banners with its the founding date (1852) and location (San Francisco), which creates an image of a craft chocolate bar company.

Unlike other cheaper chocolate bars placed at the cash register, Ghirardelli’s shiny packages sit on the shelf next to local confectioners and fair trade chocolate bars such as Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Taza chocolate. Furthermore, Ghirardelli’s price point is similar to many premium chocolate bars, which may give customers the impression that Ghirardelli serves fancy and ethical chocolate. According to Amazon, Ghirardelli’s most popular package with fourteen squares costs twenty-six dollars, which is much more than any of the popular chocolate bars manufactured by the “Big 5” Chocolate companies (Amazon). Because of Ghirardelli products’ placement in grocery stores, Ghirardelli can assume close relationships with ethical and fair trade chocolate companies without much questioning.

The company’s chocolate packaging also lists the percentage of pure cacao in each square, whether that be Dark 60% or 72%, which makes it appear as if the company is transparent about the product’s ingredients. Packaging features luxurious images of fillings such as mint, caramel, and raspberry. Furthermore, many reputable baking websites such as Epicurious cite Ghirardelli chocolate chips as the best products on the market (Sevier). By employing specific marketing strategies on their packaging and seizing its notable reputation in the online recipe world, Ghirardelli comes across as an ethical and high quality company that cares about its consumers.

People make videos trying San Francisco Chocolate

While consumers often come away with a positive image of Ghirardelli, there are more ambiguous, and potentially nefarious, production details in the background. In the many accounts of Ghirardelli’s story, the company never discloses how its beans are sourced or never divulges their commitment to fair trade ingredients. Only by searching online, readers will find out that Ghirardelli is owned by major chocolate conglomerate Lindt & Sprüngli (Lawrence 115). Lindt & Sprüngli, headquartered in Switzerland and most known for their Lindor chocolate truffles, takes in around four billion dollars in revenue each fiscal year (Lindt & Sprüngli). Ghirardelli controls all aspects of the bean to bar production process, but like Lindt & Sprüngli, does not source fair trade ingredients (Nieburg).

Ghirardelli’s cocoa bean production webpage proudly mentions that “over 85% of Ghirardelli cocoa beans are sourced through the Lindt & Sprüngli farming program” (Ghirardelli) While this initially seems like a promising percentage, the sourcing behind the other 15% of beans never comes up, which ultimately discredits this bold statement. Additionally, Lindt & Sprüngli claim to source 100% of their West African cocoa beans from Ghana “because of the high quality of the cocoa beans in the region” (Ghirardelli). Lindt & Sprüngli also underscores the quality training they provide to Ghana farmers and their genuine investments in West African villages resource centers, a point further emphasized by pictures of smiling West African farmers. While Ghirardelli wants to associate themselves with sustainable farming practices, they do not succeed. They use vague language to describe the stories behind the ingredients and continue to source ingredients from the West African region, known for its questionable labor practices (Ghirardelli).

The Good Shopping Guide, which rates chocolate companies on a variety ethical factors including their environmental report, political donations, and animal welfare, does not list Ghirardelli’s name. The company’s owner, Lindt & Sprüngli, is given a C grade (Good Shopping Guide). This suggests that the company’s seemingly genuine transparency does not provide the whole story for the labor and sourcing. Since Ghirardelli can substitute their company name with Lindt & Sprüngli when talking about cocoa production, their name becomes less attached to questionable sourcing methods.

One Ghirardelli account positively portrays Ghirardelli’s impact: “Italian yet American, immigrant yet old-line, and authentically San Franciscan throughout, it has given California a captivating, emblematic lens through which to reflect on it” (Lawrence 115). This account, written in 2002 after its merging with Lindt & Sprüngli, fails to disclose the company’s worldwide association with the chocolate conglomerate. While Ghirardelli remains anchored to San Francisco communities, it has adopted many business practices from Lindt such as cocoa bean sourcing, as evidenced from their website. Overall, Ghirardelli fails to provide consumers with a clear and comprehensive picture of their sourcing methods.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival Highlights from 2012

In addition to Ghirardelli’s clever marketing that distances their company from questionable cocoa harvesting conditions and their relationship with Lindt & Sprüngli, Ghirardelli hosts a variety of San Francisco events to craft their image of local company rather than exacerbate their connections to a large corporation. Every year, Ghirardelli hosts the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival, reminiscent of the Classical Period Mayan chocolate rituals, in the middle of Ghirardelli Square. Featuring 50 local vendors, chocolate purveyors, and local celebrity chef speakers, the Chocolate Festival celebrates the diverse ways chefs introduce and adapt chocolate into their recipes. At ancient Mayan festivals, diners feasted on meticulously prepared “tamales, relleno negro, tortillas, atole, boiled chicken, roasted pigs, chocolate, and rum” (LeCount 943). Mayans even concocted a mix of maize and chocolate, called chilate, for diners to sample (Kufer 83). This parallels how Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival attendees can sample rums, beers, Bay Area wines, and other local specialties from the Ghirardelli Chocolate lounge. The similarities do not stop there. In what mirrors the barrier to entry for elite hosted Maya rituals, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival is not open to the public, and requires that participants buy entrance tickets. While the Festival seemingly promotes chocolate and its magical qualities, the branded Festival title along with its location in Ghirardelli Square turn the Festival into a marketing ploy targeting San Francisco residents and tourists than an attempt to seriously engage with and address issues in the problematic chocolate industry.

The iconic Ghirardelli name has achieved even more fame through its portrayal in popular culture, distancing the brand further and further from its chocolate company status. When San Francisco hosted the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the Ghirardelli company claimed a prime location opposite Fillmore Street entrance where they served Ghirardelli’s famous Ground Chocolate (The International Confectioner). In a similar extravagant display, the San Francisco musical Beach Blanket Babylon featured a character named Val Diamond wearing a star studded hat with the company’s giant marquee lights in Ghirardelli Square (Lawrence 113). As San Francisco’s reputation continued to grow during the twentieth century, Ghirardelli’s landmark similarly gained West Coast fame and subsequently worldwide fame.

Ghirardelli’s presence in San Francisco landmarks, shops, and restaurant menus has cemented a positive and nostalgic image in the people’s minds. People from all over the world flock to San Francisco to tour Ghirardelli Square and try Ghirardelli hot fudge sundaes in booths. While many San Francisco residents cherish the name Ghirardelli and swear by Ghirardelli chocolate ingredients, people have ignored the company’s more questionable business practices for too long. Ultimately, while it is possible to enjoy Ghirardelli sweets and support the local spirit in Ghirardelli Square, consumers, especially San Francisco residents, must push Ghirardelli to do become more transparent about their company practices and rituals.

Works Cited

  1. Amazon. (2019). Shop Ghirardelli Chocolate Squares, Dark Chocolate, 5.25 oz., (Pack of 6). Retrieved from
  2. At the Exposition. (1915, May). The International Confectioner, Inc. Vol. 24. Retrieved from
  3. Ethical Table. Adapted From the Good Shopping Guide, The Ethical Company Organisation.
  4. Ghirardelli. (2019). Sustainable Cocoa Production. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from
  5. Ghirardelli (2019). The History of Ghirardelli Square. Retrieved May 1, 2019 from
  6. Lindt & Sprüngli. (2017).  Lindt & Sprüngli Annual Report 2017.  KILCHBERG, SWITZERLAND: Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli AG.
  7. Kufer, J., Grube, N., and Heinrich, M. “Chocolate III: RITUAL, ART AND MEMORY.” Artes de México. No. 110 (2013): 72-96.
  8. Lawrence, Sidney. “The Ghirardelli Story.” California History. Vol. 81, No. 2 (2002): 90-115.
  9. LeCount, Lisa J. “Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Dec., 2001): 935-953. Print.
  10. Nieburg, Oliver. “Going Its ‘Own Way’: Lindt Invests $14m in Sustainable Cocoa in Last Eight Years.”, William Reed Business Media Ltd., 13 Mar. 2017,
  11. Sevier, Joe. “Taste Test: Chocolate Chips.” Epicurious, Epicurious, 4 Sept. 2018,

Media Citations

  1. “Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival 2012 Highlights.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Oct. 2012,
  2. “Irish People Try San Francisco Chocolate.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Jan. 2019,
  3. Ghirardelli Square. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from
  4. Domenico Ghirardelli. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from
  5. The 1864 California Miner’s Almanac – Ghirardelli Chocolate. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from
  6. Ghirardelli Chocolate Company Logo. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from

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